What’s the Purpose of Topless Protests?

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Last month in Tunisia, a young activist named Amina Tyler posted a topless photo of herself online, with the phrases “My body belongs to me, it doesn’t represent anyone’s honor” and “Fuck your morals” written across her torso. (Here’s the original photo.) When the Ukrainian feminist group Femen declared April 5 a day of international topless protests in solidarity, it caused a furor, and not just in Tunisia.

To me, the point of Amina’s protest (and the similar nude protest by Aliaa Magda Elmahdy in Egypt, who, like Tyler, is an atheist) was perfectly clear: it was a rejection of the idea that women’s bodies are dirty and shameful and must be covered up so they don’t tempt men into sin. That idea has been invoked in many different cultures and religions, not just Islamic ones, to oppress and to crush women’s lives: by decreeing that women should be kept at home like prisoners and denied the opportunity to get an education or a job in order to safeguard their “honor”, or that women who are raped or sexually assaulted must be at fault for enticing the men who assaulted them.

No one, I hope, is arguing that Muslim women or any other women have to undress to refute these prejudices. (I haven’t seen anyone from Femen saying this, but if they did, I would obviously oppose them.) The point of the protest is that it should always be an individual woman’s choice, not the decree of her society, tribe or family, what to do with her body, whether to show it or to cover it.

Granted, these threads are hard to disentangle when someone makes a choice that’s in line with the values of a society ruled by sexist mores. But there has to be a middle ground between “If a woman makes a choice that I don’t agree with, she’s self-hating and a bad feminist” and “Any choice that a woman makes is automatically feminist and can’t be challenged or criticized.”

The test I find most useful in teasing out the difference is this: whatever choice a person makes when it comes to their attire or their sexuality, can they freely make the opposite choice without being vilified, harassed, or put at risk of harm? If a woman chooses to wear a burqa in public, could she also have chosen to wear a bikini, or vice versa?

And on that test, most Islamic societies fail spectacularly. The explosion of violent hatred against Amina, including death threats and demands for her to be whipped or stoned, more than proves the point. Regardless of the values of individual Muslim women, most Muslim-majority countries are in the thrall of primitive, shame-based taboos that treat a woman’s modesty and virginity as the sole markers of her value. (This isn’t to say that all Western societies necessarily do better.)

That’s why this critique of the protests from Jezebel was so badly off-base, serving to defend and perpetuate sexism by wrapping it in misapplied social-justice language:

FEMEN needs to recognize that Muslim women do in fact have agency, and the idea that Muslim women are helpless, passively indoctrinated by the alleged evils of Islam, and desperately need of Western feminist help is oppressive and orientalist.

Wait just a minute. The idea that Muslim women should be able to choose for themselves how to dress – that‘s the “oppressive” idea? This is a complete inversion of reality. The “orientalist” argument would be saying that veiling is “just their culture” and that Muslim women are fine with being subservient and invisible, that human rights are a Western notion that don’t apply to other societies.

This criticism, like a similar one by Chitra Nagarajan on the Guardian, only makes sense if you assume that Muslim women as a group already have as much freedom as they need or want, that hijabs and niqabs spring entirely from individual choice, and that it’s condescending to protest on their behalf because they’re not in any way oppressed or discriminated against. As I said, this is an insultingly obvious falsehood, proven by Amina’s experience if nothing else.

We’ll know that there’s no more need for protests like this when we see societies where women aren’t viewed as repositories of male honor, where they can dress however they choose without shame or persecution. But we’re nowhere close to that day. Until then, one of the best ways to weaken an irrational taboo is to break it, flagrantly and intentionally, which is just what’s happening here. One person who breaks a taboo can often be silenced or forced into recanting through pressure and threats, but when thousands of people do it, enforcement becomes a futile effort.

Now, you could argue that Femen’s show of solidarity wasn’t all that useful, since most of them don’t live in societies where going topless is such a daring act. I grant there’s truth to that. But to argue that it’s wrong or racist or colonialist to protest at all, because no woman is oppressed by Islamic modesty teachings, is an apologetic for the worst kind of oppressive and violent religious sexism. Human rights really are universal; they really do apply to everyone; and the taboos of one culture or one religion aren’t binding on the rest of us. Whether it’s through topless protests, drawing pictures of Mohammed, or whatever method, we need to keep repeating that message until it starts to sink in.

POSTSCRIPT: After posting her initial photos, Amina was apparently beaten, drugged, subjected to forcible “virginity tests”, and held incommunicado by her own family. As of this posting, it seems that she’s escaped from them, although she isn’t yet safely out of Tunisia. Notably, one of the first groups she contacted was Femen.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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